By Jacob Russell
Fermented Mare's Milk in Western Mongolia
"Be careful," warns my translator Byeibit, a kindly and maternal woman who feels responsible for my wellbeing. "If your stomach is not used to it, it's not good."
Her warning concerns the cup of airag, fermented mare's milk, that has just been handed to me while I sit in a Ger (the felt-walled, circular tents also known as yurts) somewhere in western Mongolia, near to the Chinese border. The Ger is crowded, people packed shoulder to shoulder around the circumference--men on one side, women on the other--with more people in the center facing out. Between the two circles lie plates full of powerful dairy products from the udders of just about every domestic beast you can imagine, and Russian chocolates that look pretty and invariably taste like soap.
The occasion is a hair-cutting ceremony. Traditionally the ceremony marks a child's survival to the age of about five, no small feat for nomadic families living in Mongolia's unforgiving wilds. My hosts are Kazakh nomads and it is their six-year-old son who's made it far enough to be ritually shorn.
The atmosphere is loud and bawdy. Everybody in the Ger looks old and tough. The men have hands like clubs, swollen from work, and every year shows on their faces tenfold. They show me the kind of reserved hospitality that leaves room for me to earn it after the fact. Earn it by, for example, showing that I'm not afraid of a bit of fermented mare's milk.
I sip the airag gingerly. It's surprisingly good. Like Turkey's ayran with a little more fizz and a slightly disconcerting hint of salami in the aftertaste. Byeibit takes advantage of a quiet moment to explain that airag often sends novice drinkers running for the pit latrine. I'm reluctant to finish it for fear of a refill. My colleague is already laid out with something dairy related. I left him in another Ger lined with psychedelic fabrics from which he stumbles every two hours to vomit next to a completely unmoved yak.
It is the end of summer and the landscape is deceptively stunning, craggy hills rising over wide, green valleys full of herds of horses, goats, cows, yaks, and camels. The weather is perfect, warm during the day and cool without being chilly at night. None of which gives a true impression of the sheer uncompromising difficulty of life here.
In the winter the temperature hits -40 F and there is always snow. There are no roads, and it took us 10 hours of back-breaking off-road driving to get here from the nearest town. You might find a doctor in the village, but even then you better hope you don't need much more than some antibiotics. Each family lives from its animals. They provide milk and meat and dung to burn. You sell them when times are tough and buy them when the going's good. Water comes from the river and electricity just doesn't come.
By now many of the guests are more than jolly. It's time to cut hair but the atmosphere in the Ger is so loud and boisterous that the boy is too terrified to come inside. He is picked up and hauled through the entrance. His legs already inside, he makes a last-ditch attempt to stall, hanging onto the door frame and squirming in the arms of his brawny relative. It would be comical if it weren't for his obvious terror. Everyone laughs and shouts and his grip gives way. He's wrestled around the circle while gnarled fingers snip pieces of his hair off.
I exit the Ger to get some air. Outside, a young man braces himself against the back of a Russian Jeep and vomits copiously. While he staggers away, hawks that have been circling above the little camp all afternoon start diving down to pick pieces of half-digested, vodka-pickled meat from the puddle. The grace of their predatory swoop doesn't quite fit with its target.
Further away from the Gers, a girl of about seventeen is milking horses. As I approach some kids spook one of the horses and it delivers a kick that lands full in the girl's stomach and sends her flying onto her back. The pail of milk upends and covers her with a slapstick accuracy that recalls the perverse comedy of the boy's squirming.
After lying on her back stunned for a moment, the girl climbs to her feet. She wipes the milk from her face and kneels for a moment to get her breath, then she hobbles silently over to the mare that kicked her and continues to milk it. It seems as though there isn't much else to do.